Sports stars sac­ri­fic­ing far more dur­ing Covid cri­sis than their crit­ics

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - Oliver Brown Chief Sports Writer

An ill-ad­vised home stay will be a more heinous sin than Flintoff’s worst drunken es­capades

From rid­ing a ped­alo at 4am off the shores of St Lu­cia to leav­ing trace el­e­ments of cannabis in a ho­tel room, Eng­land’s crick­eters have run an ex­otic gamut of trans­gres­sions in earn­ing Test match bans. But just when you imag­ined ev­ery he­do­nis­tic ex­treme had been ex­hausted, up pops Jofra Archer with a world first for his sport. This time there is no sug­ges­tion of drink­ing, in­hal­ing, or ca­vort­ing in the com­pany of “four de­li­cious dar­lings”, as Phil Tufnell once boasted of do­ing in Ade­laide. In­stead, Archer’s of­fence is to have rent a gi­ant hole in his team’s Covid-se­cure en­ve­lope by go­ing home to Brighton.

In fu­ture, this week’s sec­ond Test will re­flect a novel list of the un­avail­able: James An­der­son (rested), Mark Wood (rested), Archer (breach of biose­cu­rity pro­to­col). At a time of hair-trig­ger out­rage, the de­fault re­ac­tion is to con­demn Archer for his feck­less­ness, al­though he seems to be do­ing a thor­ough job of that al­ready. “I have put not only my­self but the whole team and man­age­ment in dan­ger,” he said, as pun­dits lined up to de­cry him for let­ting him­self, his team-mates and his gov­ern­ing body down. Truly, there is noth­ing like a lapse from the new norms of these all-in-it­to­gether times for trig­ger­ing an orgy of self-right­eous­ness.

What the sanc­ti­mony around Archer ig­nores, though, are the lengths to which Eng­land play­ers must go to sat­isfy the Covid com­pli­ance of­fi­cers. For the few me­dia in at­ten­dance at the Ageas Bowl last week, it was not such a hard­ship, given they were free to head home af­ter five days for a reac­quain­tance with re­al­ity. But for the play­ers, who first formed their bub­ble on June 23, the iso­la­tion goes on. By the time the third Test wraps up in Manch­ester, they will have been liv­ing in each other’s pock­ets for 35 days. While the temp­ta­tion is to ac­cuse Archer of wil­ful dis­obe­di­ence, he might sim­ply have found that the plea­sures of the nightly room ser­vice menu have their lim­its.

Granted, it is hardly a prison sen­tence. The Eng­land team’s Hil­ton in Southamp­ton even had its own golf course. The in­con­ve­nient truth, though, is that in the name of pub­lic en­ter­tain­ment, the na­tion’s sports stars are sac­ri­fic­ing a good deal more than those who so read­ily lam­bast them. Joe Root’s wife, Car­rie, gave birth to their sec­ond child on July 5. Within a week, he was head­ing into Man­cu­nian quar­an­tine un­til the end of the month. One won­ders how many fa­thers in the same po­si­tion would be asked to square this ar­range­ment at home, never mind how well it would be re­ceived.

The Eng­land and Wales Cricket Board could rea­son­ably point out that the rules are non-ne­go­tiable, and that play­ers’ liveli­hoods de­pend on ad­her­ing to them. With each Test worth £20mil­lion to the ECB, the sport fears that any er­rors could bring the en­tire Covid­proofed ed­i­fice tum­bling down. The Gov­ern­ment has all sports backed into such a tight cor­ner that only the sever­est re­stric­tions and the fullest obe­di­ence will do.

Archer’s mis­de­meanour proves that none of this is sus­tain­able. To sug­gest that his overnight stay in Brighton has en­dan­gered the health of his peers is a stretch. None of the bub­bles that sports are try­ing to cre­ate are truly air­tight. For a start, Eng­land play­ers were at lib­erty to make the jour­ney from Southamp­ton to Manch­ester in their own cars. Strictly speak­ing, any of them could have bro­ken the seal just by stop­ping at Cher­well Val­ley ser­vices for a cup of tea and a sausage roll.

Ul­ti­mately, sport’s dra­co­nian Covid mea­sures are about op­tics as much as pub­lic health. Just as im­por­tant as the in­sis­tence on peo­ple do­ing the right thing is the fact that they are seen to do so. This is why broad­cast­ers, in their des­per­a­tion to demon­strate ob­ser­vance of the two-me­tre rule – soft­ened to one me­tre plus mit­i­ga­tions over three weeks ago, if any­one no­ticed – are po­si­tion­ing in­ter­view­ers and their sub­jects so far apart on screen that they are barely in the same post­code.

The ob­ses­sion with set­ting an ex­am­ple is per­ni­cious. In­deed, the pile-on against Archer is mag­ni­fied by the pop­u­lar be­lief that he has fallen short of the stan­dards by which we must all abide. But as Car­los Brath­waite, his friend and West Indies op­po­nent, noted: “He’s not there for your son or daugh­ter to look up to. He’s there to live his life and do what he does best.” Alas, the vigour with which Covid rules are po­liced en­sures that as­per­sions will be cast on his char­ac­ter. An ill-ad­vised home stay will be de­picted as a more heinous sin than Fred­die Flintoff ’s worst drunken es­capades. The lack of pro­por­tion is weary­ing. Archer has bro­ken a rule and is pay­ing the price. Any in­ter­pre­ta­tion be­yond that is moral­is­ing.

Never mind sports fig­ures be­ing the prob­lem chil­dren of Planet Covid, they are of­ten the most du­ti­ful rule­fol­low­ers of all. Take this week­end’s Hun­gar­ian Grand Prix, where all UK cit­i­zens – in other words, al­most 90 per cent of the pad­dock – are pre­vented from ven­tur­ing any­where be­yond their ho­tels or the track. Should they stray, they risk a £13,000 fine or a prison sen­tence. While it is dif­fi­cult to sum­mon much sym­pa­thy for a driver as priv­i­leged as Lewis Hamil­ton, the rules he must hon­our are suf­fo­cat­ing. Even while spray­ing cham­pagne post-vic­tory, he is re­quired to wear a mask.

Elite sport is do­ing ev­ery­thing in its power to show that it is be­yond re­proach. Gov­ern­ment dik­tats de­mand as much. But the strange, sani­tised world that has been cu­rated can­not last. Sooner or later, as Archer’s Brighton de­tour shows, the halo will slip and the temp­ta­tions of a life worth liv­ing will be­come im­pos­si­ble to re­sist.

‘This is not a grave mat­ter of state,” in­toned Clive Tyldesley, rather beg­ging the question of why he had recorded a two-minute home video for his an­nounce­ment this week.

The news? That he was be­ing re­placed as ITV’s lead foot­ball com­men­ta­tor by Sam Mat­ter­face, in a move that left him “up­set, an­noyed and baf­fled”.

Tyldesley, by any gauge, is a su­perb com­men­ta­tor, whose lyri­cism is wo­ven into our mem­o­ries of two decades’ worth of Eng­land matches and Cham­pi­ons League fi­nals.

But this or­ches­trated lament for his own ca­reer was not his finest hour. It deprived Mat­ter­face, 42, of what should have been one of the most sat­is­fy­ing mo­ments of his life.

In any case, Tyldesley, at 65, has not been sacked, merely moved side­ways. The out­pour­ing of pity he has brought on is ex­ces­sive.

This should be about a TV per­son­al­ity chang­ing roles, not the fall of some in­vi­o­lable na­tional in­sti­tu­tion.

Party time: An­drew Flintoff (far left) and Kevin Pi­etersen ar­rive at Down­ing Street the day af­ter Eng­land’s Ashes vic­tory in 2005, and (be­low) Jofra Archer

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.